A friend of mine posted on Facebook recently seeking British folk-rock recommendations for a playlist he was building. Considering the obscurity of the genre here in America, he received an overwhelming response. That he is the founder of Citay, a well-regarded folk-rock band, explains this somewhat, but I was nevertheless amazed at how this corner of the musical universe attracts so many fervent listeners.
For a lot of people, the genre starts and ends with Fairport Convention, the scene’s blazing star. They made the definitive album Liege & Lief, which deserves every bit of acclaim it gets. However, Liege didn’t emerge out of a vacuum. The era and locale out of which it arose produced a great deal of incredibly beautiful music that should be more widely heard.
A history of folk music in England could occupy many pages (the BBC produced a three-hour documentary on the subject). The main message I want to impart here is that British folk music had been a sort of backwater province for some decades before it began reviving itself in the 1950s, paralleling the American scene. Alan Lomax, the tireless archivist who helped kickstart the American folk music revival, spurred the British folk scene’s renaissance by cataloguing and recording singers on that side of the pond. He was assisted in both America and England by budding singer Shirley Collins, who went on to become one of the genre’s most profound and mysterious artists. Also integral were A.L. Lloyd, Ewan MacColl and his wife, Peggy Seeger (Pete’s half-sister — again, note the connection to the American folk revival). The trio started the Topic label, which became an outlet for this music and defined an aesthetic for British folk in the ’50s. Lloyd, MacColl and Seeger believed folk music should be socially responsible and represent the voice of the working class. Therefore, they favored a fairly rigid, traditionalist view of folk music, one that featured acoustic instrumentation and topics such as workers’ rights. Artists like the Watersons, Shirley Collins, Louis Killen, Anne Briggs and June Tabor released albums on Topic at this time.
The great leap forward represented by Liege & Lief is the electrification of this folk tradition. Following the lead of Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, artists began to eschew MacColl and Co.’s strict definitions and added electric guitars, drums and basses to the mix. Some of the biggest proponents of this new perspective were singer Sandy Denny and bassist Ashley Hutchings, both of Fairport Convention. After Liege & Lief, they left the group to focus exclusively on this new sound. Denny started Fotheringay, while Hutchings founded Steeleye Span, who went on to become one of the most successful British folk rock groups ever. Not content with the more polished approach Steeleye took after their first three albums, Hutchings again quit a group he founded to start a new one: the Albion Country Band, whose first album, No Roses, is a classic of the genre that basically answers the question, “What if Shirley Collins, rather than Sandy Denny, sang in Fairport Convention?” Topic artists weren’t immune to this trend; many made electrified albums, including standouts by Anne Briggs and Lal & Mike Waterson.
I responded to my friend’s challenge by making an extremely personal playlist of my favorite songs by my favorite groups. These songs represent my deep forays into this darkly bucolic world of music. They are my gateways and the threads I followed as I traversed this world. They are places where I get a hint of old ways of living or glimpses of that elder faerie realm peering through the veil of modernity that has all but erased it.